‘I’ ON CULTURE
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the Beatles in America, we celebrate many things: great music, a new attitude on life that the four young men brought back then and a major cultural shift. Isn’t it nice to do an anniversary of a happy event instead of all the remembrances of tragedies?
Like so many of my generation, I watched the first performances on The Ed Sullivan Show. I had been busy at college and had not even heard their songs previously. But as my head bobbed to “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” I wondered why so many people were angry about the Beatles. Yes, their hair was a bit long, but that was not uncommon, even in Britain, where young people declared themselves either “mods” who wore very stylized suits or “rockers” who were casual and sloppy. As stories came out about the whole thing, John Lennon in his usual style said the Beatles were simply “mockers.” They transcended the whole issue, just as they transcended all the usual categories of music.
I recall seeing musical theater composers back then talking about the new songs as “the beginning of the end,” and in a way, they were correct. As the Beatles grew the audience for rock, talented musicians could make as much money touring with pop songs as they might earn from writing an entire Broadway show, and the number of musicals dropped. I heard opera star Robert Merrill turn “And I Love Her” into a semi-operatic wreck, losing all of the sexy backbeat, while the “older and wiser” heads declared that Beatles songs were not so bad as long as others sang them “properly.”
And the Beatles continued on, writing brilliant songs in the short time they worked together. What sets them apart is the unique completeness of their work. They wrote standard pop such as “Please Please Me” but also did stunning soft ballads including “Yesterday,” which uses a string quartet as backing. We have the lilting melody framing the haunting words of the introspective “In My Life.” Then they could turn things around with rocking anthems such as “We Can Work It Out” and “Get Back.”
Many groups that turn out a few songs, most of which sound very much alike, and simply present it as their life work. The Beatles songbook contains almost everything. There were the Indian-themed sitar songs and the psychedelic hymns. The Beatles had something for everyone.
And they were a group whose members even transcended their parts. My favorite was cynic John Lennon. He managed to somehow combine his mordant view of the universe with an unabashed lyrical idealism and to set it all to glorious music. Paul McCartney, although seemingly the most pop-oriented Beatle, provided a few of the more interesting songs. Some of the seemingly obvious Lennon songs were written by him (“Eleanor Rigby,” “The Fool on the Hill”) and several of the most clearly McCartney songs were provided by Lennon (“Please Please Me” and “If I Fell”). George Harrison, seemingly the quietest of the group, provided several brilliant songs, including “Something,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Here Comes the Sun.” And Ringo Starr was, if not everyone’s favorite, almost certain to be the second-favorite.
I watched the CBS television show last week when a dozen of today’s top pop singers did covers of favorite songs in the great repertory. What struck me was how completely the Beatles have become the institution they once came to overthrow. The audience, made up of celebrities and their families, were singing along with the hits. Everyone knows the words just as everyone can sing along. Elderly people, children — everyone knows the songs. They are part of our lives no matter how old we now are.
And when Paul and Ringo sang together at the end, we could see today’s superstars applauding and behaving just like the teenage girls did 50 years ago. And when Paul, after a wonderful shout-out to John and George, began to sing “Hey Jude” with Ringo backing him on drums, it became a magical moment, not just for the stars there, including Stevie Wonder and Maroon 5, but for all of us.
For all of these rock stars, the Beatles still are the original rock stars. And there they will remain until all are gone.
So, one last tear and a feeling of gratitude for the music they created that enhanced all our lives.